A giant step backward on the treatment of orcas in captivity

By on December 5, 2017 with 3 Comments

It was my great hope that SeaWorld’s March 2016 decision to end its orca breeding and theatrical performance shows would be a catalyst prompting all other marine theme parks to get on board and move to the next, better chapter in our relationship with cetaceans. We imagined that the company’s commitment would close the chapter on the days of capturing or breeding them for public display and behavioral stunts. Once that chapter finally closed, future generations would look back with befuddlement that for so long human beings kept some of the most intelligent and awe-inspiring creatures on the planet in small pools, never intending to let them swim free again.

Media reports have now come to light about a situation that threatens to prolong the era of captive display of orcas. Loro Parque Zoo, based on the island of Tenerife in Spain, took custody of a rescued female orca named Morgan in 2011, and stories appearing this week have stated that Morgan is pregnant.

Most wild orca populations are not listed as endangered, and captivity does the species no good at any level as a hedge against extinction. On top of that, the sad and sorry past history of breeding and keeping orcas in captivity leaves little room for optimism. It’s one thing to take in an animal in trouble and provide lifesaving care, which is how Morgan ended up in captivity. It’s another matter to impregnate an orca in a captive setting, knowing that the newborn will never find a pod and will probably never swim a mile in a day, leave alone 50 or 100 miles, as many orcas do.

Several organizations closely involved in following her plight have raised concerns about Morgan’s health. Adding the rigors of a long gestation to all of that is unlikely to do anything but tax her system and weaken her further.

In March 2016, SeaWorld, rocked by the crisis surrounding the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau and the documentary “Blackfish.” took a bold and difficult step, ending its orca breeding and theatrical orca performance shows. The HSUS praised SeaWorld’s decision, and since then we’ve worked together on anti-shark finning campaigns and kept an open and productive dialogue. The company is holding up its side of a shared commitment for forging a legislative and public education agenda to make the oceans safer and healthier for a number of marine species.

Morgan’s dilemma stems from a 2006 agreement that resulted in the transfer of four orcas from SeaWorld to Loro Parque, and her own transfer to Loro Parque from a Dutch dolphinarium that had her in its custody after her rescue.

For the last year, we have been advocating that SeaWorld challenge attempts by Loro Parque to breed Morgan with any of the orcas it transferred there. But SeaWorld recently decided to end its relationship with Loro Parque and to abandon its efforts to dissuade the zoo from breeding orcas.

This places Morgan and the other whales at the mercy of Loro Parque, which, like SeaWorld, had a chance to embrace the high ground by making a commitment not to breed orcas.

Right now, we’re worried about the health of Morgan and her baby. But we’re also outraged by Loro Parque’s rejection of the understanding we reached with SeaWorld. What the team at Loro Parque is doing cuts against the swell of feeling that keeping orcas in captivity is an enterprise that should be phased out with all deliberate speed.

P.S. – Tomorrow the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in a lawsuit that will determine the fate of Lolita, the only captive individual of the endangered Southern Resident distinct population segment of orcas. Lolita’s been in captivity at Miami Seaquarium for nearly five decades. Plaintiffs, supported by an amicus curiae brief from HSUS attorneys, have asserted that keeping her in a woefully small and shallow tank with incompatible dolphins and inadequate shelter from the blistering sun harms and harasses Lolita in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act.

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Wildlife/Marine Mammals

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3 Comments

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  1. Prof. Andrew Knight says:

    Such exploitation of orcas for entertainment and profit is deplorable. Based on neuroanatomical indices such as brain size and encephalization quotient, orcas are among the most intelligent animals on Earth. They display a range of complex behaviors indicative of social intelligence, that we document in our scientific paper http://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/6/8/49/htm. Oceanaria confinement and commercial use of orcas can no longer be considered ethically defensible, given the understanding we now have of orcas’ advanced cognitive, social, and communicative capacities, and of their behavioral needs.

  2. Malcolm J. Brenner says:

    If keeping orcas in captivity isn’t “harming and harassing them,” what is? Do we have to harpoon them to violate the ESA? Forcing them into artificial insemination is nothing but a passionless form of rape, which is done for the profit motive rather than a need to control the victim — that control has already been obtained early in the training process. I am of the belief that we could learn remarkable things about the ocean and our own psychology if we could communicate with these remarkable creatures, but in some places we seem to be going backward.

  3. Dr. Jason Bruck says:

    I do not understand where we get the idea that intelligence in animals means that they should not be under human care. I think it is perfectly reasonable to conclude that complex cognitive abilities actually foster interspecies relationships (especially amongst organisms that share complex social systems). The genuine bond between trainers and whales is typically forgotten by the animal rights community in these arguments. Separating these bonds is likely to have huge welfare implications.

    The other welfare consideration is related to breeding. I worry that the AR community, in its zest for the end of captivity, is losing sight of the welfare consequences of a breeding ban. Since birth control is not particularly effective in cetaceans these bans have forced animal care personnel to put the orcas in even more unnatural sex-segregated social groups. Frequently, the AR community asks pro-captivity people how they would feel if they were subjected to X, Y or Z. While these questions are usually hyperbolic as it is pretty hard to make comparisons like that without making broad assumptions reguarding the animals’ mental states, one thing we do know is that the inhibition of breeding behavior is often tied to aggression, hormonal correlates of depression, stress and anti-social behavior in many species (including humans). So I think the Humane Society needs to look more broadly at this issue moving forward.

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